Trains, boats and lots of walking

The common thread of this weekend’s trip to Padova was that it was a very relaxing time. This was in part due to the fact that Padua is a relatively small city, and so it’s not bursting at the seams with activities that demand doing. There are, of course, some sights that really are must-sees. So, I will describe those, and then I think it will be most profitable to just sum up general themes. I visited Venice on Saturday, so I’ll take the same general approach with that city.

Right, the first thing one must visit in Padova is the Scrovegni chapel. There are no photos allowed inside, but I would highly recommend Google searching “Padova Scrovegni Chapel,” (if you’re really too lazy to do that yourself, I’ve even done it for you here) or visiting a virtual tour site such as this. Seriously, I highly recommend it. It’s an amazing space decorated entirely by Giotto frescoes. I was smart and booked the very first slot for the day, which had two advantages. First, I was the only person in there for most of the time. I really mean the only one: the guard decided at some point that I wasn’t a threat and left for coffee or something. It was also nice to be there early because I got to stay well over my allotted 20 minutes, since nearly nobody else was there. The ticket for this also let me into the museum nearby, so I enjoyed some other priceless paintings and works of cultural heritage for a while, but it really wasn’t the same.

The next incredible place in Padova is the basilica dedicated to St. Anthony, known as Il Santo. First, this place offers FIFTEEN Sunday Masses, if you include the four prefestivi on Saturday. I don’t know if there’s some sort of Guiness World Records category for this, but there should be. OK, more impressive than that is the place itself. Not just because there are FIFTEEN SUNDAY MASSES (seriously), it’s a very prayerful place. I spent a lot of quality time with St. Anthony. Conducive to this, it is also very beautiful. Though there are innumerable “no photo” signs, and some Italians in suits who wag their fingers at you, I persisted resolutely and pretended to be confused.

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And besides, this is just a side chapel anyway. But, on the same note, this is just a side chapel!! What an awesome church.

Also of note was the Baptistery of the Duomo. Walking into this large room is like waking up from a fitful slumber (economics class?) and remembering that the world is real, and full of more colors than you could have imagined. It’s like a sunbeam piercing through rainclouds and illuminating a patch of green in a sea of gray. It’s like exploding some Baroque church and using all the needless bits of color to create something meaningful. OK, it’s not really like that at all, but it just feels GOOD. The colors are intensely rich and vibrant, yet cohesive and balance. The depiction of the figures is masterful. I may have been listening to the ending of Shostakovich 4 while writing this, so perhaps my mind is being overly ethereal; I’m going to let the art speak for itself.

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If you think it’s hard to get a picture of your family where no one’s blinking, looking weird or about to sneeze, imagine how tough this must have been!

The Duomo itself was unimpressive, although I must say I loved the spiritualism embedded in the design of the altar. Here’s my take. The artist starts with the principle that proper reverence mandates that one bow to the altar. Standard churchey stuff, no big problem. The artist then thinks to himself, “Dude, like, what is the essence of a bow anyway? It’s totally a sign of humility and deference, right man? Trippy stuff” (I tried to preserve a general sense of the syntax in translating from Italian). The artist then concludes that, if the goal is to encourage humility among the faithful, what could be more humiliating than having to bow to a hideous, ugly bland of marble? From this logic, I give you this altar.

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Take the exact opposite of whatever florid language my Shostakoviched brain used for the baptistery and you about sum up this place.

Most of the rest of Friday was spent just wandering about in the cold. Almost all of the buildings have little arched walkways in front of them, which gives the city a very hospitable and neighborly feeling. There’s a large, lovely open place called Prato della Valle, which is full of Christmas decorations but I still enjoyed. I happened upon a church dedicated to Saint Mary of Health–still much needed at this point–and the (supposed) resting place of St. Luke the Evangelist, so there were many opportunities for prayer and meditation. I also had a delicious lunch for probably 2/3 what it would cost in Rome. First there was some pasta described by several adjectives I didn’t recognize (always a good sign) flavored by pesto and shrimp; next, I asked for a second plate that was typical of the region. I got some rather boring cold cuts and some quite tasty cheeses; of course, this was all consumed with a delicious regional wine.

That the meat was cold could very well demonstrate the first theme of the day: it was cold. I suppose that’s what happens when you go north. But that was a minor theme. The really cool part of the city (hehehe) was that there were so many amazing frescoes. The Scrovegni, the Baptistery, and Il Santo were just a few examples from a city overflowing with beauty. Even the little unspellable-on-your-first-attempt Chiesa degli Eremitani (Church of the Hermits) housed great wall-work. All I would add to this was that the city’s atmosphere was also a recurring joy of the day. It was full of happy, welcoming people; I felt safe wandering about at all sorts of odd hours, as is my wont.

Take all of these themes and negate them (except for the coldness), and there you have Venice in a nutshell. Venice was the most depressing place I have been to in the course of my European tenure (possibly even including Caravita). I will admit that it was very noticeably the touristic offseason (and maybe the very fact that this was so painfully noticeable made me dislike the city), but I think Venice appeals to people largely on sentimental levels of which I am not capable. This church is a very fitting allegory for the city: a pretty facade on a rather ugly body, except even the facade now looks deteriorated and grimy.

Allegory church

Oh, except there aren’t any noticeable parts falling off, and I was actually able to go inside.

I believe that a city’s churches reflect some pretty telling elements of its culture (and that’s not just because I love visiting churches). Venice was the first city I’ve visited where there was no way of entering most of the churches. Innumerable doors were locked or behind barriers without signs or postings of hours. And many of those that were open wanted large sums of money to get in! Even beyond that, most of them were decrepit from a lack of care. The culture has moved on to better things, like fashion and small dogs. As I said, depressing.

If any church is going to redeem Venice, it’s San Marco. This is the shining emblem of the city, one of the most recognizable places it has to offer. Though at least you can get in, when you do you are just immediately more depressed. The floor is caving in (this is what happens when A. you are pretentious and wealthy enough to build a city on underwater poles and B. then decide to neglect it); the arches are lopsided and look ready to collapse; it’s full of noise, even during Mass; even the lion–symbolizing St. Mark, who’s obviously a big deal in that church–looks horrified by the state of things.

Moments later, he burst into big tiley tears and flew away to go see if there was any room in Palermo.

Being on a bus that was actually a boat was rather cool, I suppose (even if the ticket system is practically designed to be cheated). There was a church dedicated to Santa Maria della Salute too (still needed). And, one of the churches I visited had this cool candle stand (even though I had to wait for at least fifteen minutes for the orcs to return so it would start glowing again):

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Although, I will have you notice, it literally doesn’t even hold a light to Padua.

OK, I’m not going to get into all the reasons I disliked Venice. Some are historical (I am a quarter Croatian…), many were aesthetic, even more were sheer principles that probably wouldn’t make much sense outside my head and would take a long time to explain anyway (though that was an alternative title that I considered for this blog). So I returned to Padua slightly early, relaxed for a bit, had some low-quality pizza and drinks (liturgical new-year, after all…) and saw the stars before going to bed. Seriously, you can see the stars in Padua. What a great place.

You can also see the moon!

Other notable astronomical sightings included what I’m somewhat confident was a planet and what I’m even more confident was an airplane.

This was Sunday morning. I went to one of the FIFTEEN MASSES at Il Santo, headed to the train station, and waited for fifty minutes for mine to arrive. The worst part of this was the freezing cold. NO, wait, the worst part was that two other trains to Rome came during that span, but I couldn’t get on those ones. NO, wait, the real worst part was that there was a church I wanted to visit but told myself I didn’t have time to (it only opened half an hour before my scheduled departure). But unlike the other time I’ve experienced a 50 minute delay (I love trenitalia so much.), this one got in just about on time, so I must hold that to their credit.

It was a great trip. I loved Padua. Even though Venice was not my favorite, I’m glad I experienced it anyway (though I’ve used that same exact line for many a vegetable–and I’m still not sure if that’s an insult to Venice or to vegetables).

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December 2, 2013 · 11:00 pm

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